* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Numbers 25, 31: No Matter Who Commands It, No Amount of Violence Can Erase the Value of Human Life

After Balaam blessed the Israelites (several times over), the women of Moab started seducing Israelite men and enticing them to worship the Moabite god with them.  As one might imagine, this led to death and violence.  The Israelites suffered a plague sent by their god, so they first killed the offending Israelite men, which ended the plague.  Then they sent a force into Moab and slaughtered the men, women, and boys.  The young girls they kept for themselves, along with all the livestock and wealth of the Moabite people.  At least this is how the Israelites tell the story in Numbers 25 and 31.  

We'll go back to the intervening chapters, but it makes sense to put these two together because of the connected narrative.  Plus, the violence of the Israelites and their god is honestly starting to get a bit predictable and tiresome.  It is a problem though.  For those who want to promote the Bible as the infallible and inerrant word of an almighty, omniscient, and perfect divine being, it should be especially troubling.  Here's why.

The Bible claims that God is unchanging.  The New Testament actually says that Jesus  is "the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow," but the Old Testament also credits God with the quality of consistency in many passages.  Thus, if God had a specific opinion about a certain behavior thousands of years ago, it is assumed that he feels the same way today.  And that he will always feel that way.  Otherwise, there would be no predicting what God wants or thinks.  There is no actual credible conversation happening with the God of the Bible in the 21st century, so the words written in the Bible must be viewed as dependable by those who want to know about the Christian God.  Since the words are static, it must also be assumed that God's opinions and feelings are fairly static.  Or perhaps "consistent" is a less loaded word.

So, God became angry and told the Israelites that, in order to end the plague he had sent, they had to kill all of the Israelite men who had indulged in sexual immorality and worshiped foreign gods with the Moabite women.  This makes sense, because the death penalty has already been established as punishment for just about anything an Israelite could do wrong.  On top of that, they had to kill all the Moabite women these Israelite men brought back to the Israelite camp with them.  Then the plague ended.  Then, God instructs the Israelites to take revenge on the Moabites by going in and killing everybody (except the young girls who hadn't yet had sex with anyone) and claiming the spoils of the slaughter as Israelite property (including the aforementioned young girls).

If we are to believe that the Bible is a legitimate depiction of God's character, we must assume that God still thinks like this.  This is a problem.  On the surface, it entitles believers to execute anyone in their midst who disobeys the rules of the faith community.  It comes close to permitting believers to murder any outsiders who potentially lead their brethren astray, to the point of ethnic cleansing.  To top it off, it suggests that it's alright to kidnap young girls and plunder the wealth of the people you've slaughtered.  If followed explicitly, it would seem that only Jews are entitled to this kind of violence and plunder, since they are the racial and cultural heroes of the story -- the Chosen People, as it were.  But many Christians today believe that they have been "adopted" into this prestigious covenant, since the New Testament teaches that people are equal under God.  (Paul wasn't actually suggesting that people should live by Old Testament cultural standards when he wrote that, though.)

Obviously, no one thinks like this.  Except that people do.  We frequently hear about fundamentalists in various faith traditions committing deplorable acts of violence against family members or neighbors, and although we may wince and decry Islam or some other religion alien to our own, the problem is in the dehumanizing factor of fundamentalism itself.  Even when American Christians don't outwardly condone murder, some people still dehumanize "outsiders" to their belief system -- primarily the subcultures who disagree with the values of the social ultra-conservative.  When read through a particular lens, the Bible seems to support their behavior.  As it happens, the narrative of the Bible often reveals more about human failure than it reveals about the divine.

The Bible still contains some incredibly insightful messages, however.  All of the meaning placed on a father's blessing back in Genesis still has its reflection in our society.  A father's blessing doesn't have magical power because some supernatural being somehow infuses it, but our relationships with our fathers do have tremendous psychological impact on our lives -- how we see ourselves, other people, and the world.  There is value in understanding the importance of that relationship, without the trappings of divine mystery and moral absolutes.  What a father says isn't necessarily true or right just because a father says it, but it's often going to be meaningful just because a father says it.

At a certain point in our maturity, we start looking for our own answers rather than accepting without critique the words of our elders.  That process of maturing is hampered by claims that a book of scripture is infallible and unquestionable.  This belief keeps people emotionally, psychologically, and morally stunted.  It is a way of controlling people who are willing to remain thoughtless and immature, but it is no way to build a society of people who can create a better world.  How can people create anything of value in the face of a god who commands destruction of everything and everyone who threatens the status quo?

We cannot think of God like this and thrive as a society.  We cannot look at the cultural records of a group of people who habitually engage in barbaric behavior and assume that their understanding of the divine is a legitimate depiction of a perfect deity.  It even runs contrary to Jesus' teachings in the New Testament of that very same Bible.  The god who commands death to all outsiders, whether they are outsiders by choice or by genetics, doesn't have a valuable place in our world.

Not only does it limit what kind of world we can create, it hurts us as a society.  Sending people off to "fight for our freedom" has become a euphemism for the precise kind of barbarism the Israelites engaged in: kill the people who are hindering you from getting what you want, then lay claim to what they leave behind.  And yet, we don't even see the benefits of that violence as a society.  At least the Israelites divided the spoils equally and got a generation of men who were more likely to be upstanding citizens instead of running off with some foreign trollop.  In fact, over the past few years, more American soldiers have committed suicide than have died in the line of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq combined.  It's a stark fact that points to the more subtle psychological cost of viewing the world through a dehumanizing lens.

We cannot ultimately reconcile the idea of slaughtering people with the deep knowledge that human life has value.  We do not need any scripture to tell us this, and we don't need anyone to interpret the character of any god to gain this knowledge.  It is true.  Human beings have value.  Whether they agree with you or not.  Whether they do what you want them to or not.  You cannot carelessly (or carefully) rob people of their humanity without it taking a toll on your own psyche.  A part of us cannot ignore that there is something worthy behind the eyes of every person with whom we share existence.  Perhaps when we begin to doubt that truth, it becomes easier to doubt that there is anything worthy within us, but doubt doesn't make it any less true.  Human beings have value.  You have value.  Everyone who agrees with you has value.  Everyone who disagrees with you has value.  Nothing can steal that, although some people may try.  It is an innate human quality.  We can wrestle with it.  We can deny it.  Or we can accept it and live in that truth.


  1. You keep saying the same thing, that human beings have value, and at first I was like, 'he keep repeating that same thing over and over again, when is he gonna move on...' ANd then I got it. Human beings have value. How I treat people matters. And I'm a human being, so how I treat myself matters. I'm glad you kept saying it. I feel like I just discovered something big.

  2. Very cool. I didn't realize I had been so repetitious, but I'm glad it worked for you!